As a milk donor in several capacities I acknowledge that I think very positively of milk sharing, so the list of cons may not be as unbiased as it could be…
Ten Pros of Milksharing:
1. Milksharing provides breastmilk with full immune and nutritional capacities intact. Pasteurization in milk banks does alter some of the components of breastmilk. Pasteurized human milk is still healthier than artificial baby milk, but human milk with live cells that has not been flash heated is unaltered.
2. Milksharing is cost effective! When gaps in breastmilk supply are experienced, or in adoptive families, milksharing often costs far less than artificial milks. It is generally not free; recipients will often provide milk storage bags and pay for the transportation costs involved in getting the milk from donor to recipient, but these costs are often far less than the cost of formula. Cross nursing is free, since women can nurse another baby directly without pumping and storage and transportation of the milk.
3. Milksharing is empowering. As a donor I can attest that providing milk, which my body makes as a matter of course, for a child outside of my family is empowering. I feel very happy to fill in the small gaps in my friend’s milk making capacity. I was careful in the beginning to establish a routine and a realistic daily amount that I could continue to provide long term, which I think has gone a long way towards making this relationship positive.
Milksharing also empowers recipient families because they can inform themselves of the risks and benefits of different types of supplemental feeding, and choose what works best for them. Direct woman to woman milk sharing involves no institution, physician, government regulation, or middleman, which means parents must inform and arm themselves, and take full responsibility for the outcome. This is an empowering process.
4. Milksharing provides human milk for human babies. Human milk is tailored to facilitate the rapid development of the human infant brain and immune system, and milksharing provides species specific milk for human infants.
5. Milksharing is low tech, and an age old way of addressing gaps in the availability of breastmilk for individual babies. Some milksharing relationships can avoid using technology altogether, since donors can hand express instead of using a breast pump, or cross nurse.
6. Milksharing increases awareness of the benefits of breastmilk, as the friends and family members of the recipient will be exposed to the sharing of this ‘liquid gold’ resource.
7. Milksharing is environmentally friendly. Although some breast pumps use electricity and the use of breastmilk collection attachments and bottles require washing, this uses less water, plastic, and produces less waste than the production, distribution, and use of infant formula.
8. Milksharing increases the sense of community amongst parents and families. Parenting can sometimes be isolating, and is an immensely difficult job. The more extensive our supportive communities, the more we can help each other and raise our children with a large circle of loving people they can rely on and help in return as needs arise. Sharing milk is one way to contribute to this interdependent community.
9. Milksharing increases the infant feeding options for families. There are as many reasons for needing options as there are families with children, and some situations really require access to breastmilk. Some infants are intolerant of most or all infant formulas. Some babies have conditions or diseases which are critical and could benefit from human milk. Banked, pasteurized human milk is an excellent option for these families, but is in short supply, particularly in Canada. It can also be prohibitively expensive. Milksharing adds to the available options for all families when it comes to infant feeding. More options is a very positive thing. Living in rural Saskatchewan? Have a sick baby in Nova Scotia? Adopted an infant from foster care in Ottawa? If a full, uninterrupted milk supply is not available from a baby’s mother, milksharing adds to the available options for that family when it comes to feeding. Many families who use milksharing actually combine several feeding options, including formula, goats milk, donor milk, and mother’s own milk.
10. Milksharing (theoretically) provides infants with a wider array of immunological protection; with antibodies available from several women, babies can benefit from drinking milk that has been donated to them! This has not been studied or scientifically proven, but it makes logical sense.
Ten Cons of Milksharing:
1. Connecting donors and recipients can be difficult. Social networking has made this far easier, but likely if you live in a rural location or in a country that doesn’t traditionally milk share, it can be difficult to find a donor or a recipient for excess milk.
2. There is a risk of an infant contracting a disease through donor milk. This risk is minimal, since most women are screened for a variety of communicable diseases when they are pregnant, and would not consider themselves good candidates for donation if they had a disease. Diseases which are communicable of which the donor may have and not be aware of are often either not passed into the milk, or are neutralized by the milk itself, which has live white blood cells that actively attack pathogens even when milk is left at room temperature for hours. Pasteurization of human milk is also possible, can be done by recipients, and will minimize risk. However, this risk exists in a way that cannot be eliminated and which does not exist with infant formulas. PhD in Parenting examines risk in this post, including the low risk of HIV transmission.
3. Other, less threatening pathogens can be passed through donor milk, such as yeast infections. If a donor had a breast yeast infection it can pass to the recipient baby, cause thrush, and, if his or her mother is also nursing, cause a breast yeast infection for her as well. This is treatable, but painful for everyone. [Of course rates of illness are higher and more severe amongst formula fed infants; a balanced look at risks is imperative.]
4. Donating milk can be a demanding process. Pumping, storing, transportation, the logistics of travelling (continuing to pump while on vacation to keep supply going can be inconvenient, for example!), and the ongoing nature of the donor-recipient relationship can be draining for donors.
5. Receiving donor milk can be disempowering. I noted that empowerment is a pro of milksharing, including for recipients. But the inability to provide a full milk supply can be very difficult for women, and the process of receiving milk from others has the potential to undermine her confidence. Particularly if breastfeeding supporters focus on the donors in milksharing relationships and don’t acknowledge the incredible sacrifices parents go through to provide good nutrition for their babies, no matter what kind of milk they use, and how feeding your infant is good mothering, period.
6. There can be unexpected drops in supply. One day, I forgot to pump for my recipients. As a result, they unexpectedly had no supplemental milk for a day. I also have dips in my supply with fluctuations in my hormones throughout my monthly cycles, and when my toddler is sick and nurses more often. This affects how much I can donate.
7. Transportation and storage can lend itself to hiccups. Pick ups and drop offs on a continual basis can meet with logistical snags if schedules don’t match or need constant changing. Storage can become an issue if power failures warm up freezers, or long distance moves result in hundreds of ounces of frozen donor breastmilk thawing in the trunk of your vehicle.
8. Donor milk is not as readily available as infant formula.
9. Milksharing is often frowned upon my the medical community.
10. Family and friends can sometimes be concerned about the safety or necessity of using donor breastmilk for infants, causing stress or emotional discomfort for milksharing families.